The Ultimate Theatre of Art

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Lorenzo Quinn’s Support rearing up onto the Ca’Sagredo hotel on Venice’s Grand Canal
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Taking the pulse of Venice’s art during the city’s 57th Art Biennale

The shadow of Dante Alighieri, universal commentator on life, has a tendency to hover throughout much of the poet’s home country of Italy. But it is perhaps nowhere more present than in the maze-like web of streets and canals that have given us the world’s most unusual urban landscape, the city (and former Republic let us not forget) of Venice.

Dante visited Venice towards the end of his life in 1321. It’s said that he was particularly impressed by the Arsenale dockyard where the ships that contributed so greatly to the city’s fearsome power were constructed and maintained with a quite astonishing degree of organisation and skill. Dante seems to have been impressed enough with this huge military enterprise to have written the Arsenale into his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy. For in Canto 21 of the Inferno he invokes the place in describing immersion in boiling pitch as a punishment for swindlers:

Quale nell’Arzanà de’ Viniziani
bolle l’inverno la tenace pece
a rimpalmare i legni lor non sani

(As in the Venetians’ Arsenal 
all winter long a stew of sticky pitch
boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships)

Beyond this somewhat chilling example, the spirit of Dante’s writing, with its portraits of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, hangs pungently through the many seductive moods of Venice, taking centre stage particularly during the festive periods: Carnival, New Year, feast days, and the string of celebratory events such as (to name one of many) the annual Marriage of the Sea. This spirit seems to be the city incarnate: practically everywhere you look there are hints of the theatricality with which Venice has entranced not just Dante, but many millions of visitors down the centuries. It is the quintessential ‘show’: exotic, inviting, enchanting.

Into this theatrical impossibility of a place, this stage set of grand palaces, art, masks, gondolas and the tourist clichés and tat that summon an ever growing, almost impossible number of tourists1, comes the once-every-two-years art show known simply as the Biennale.

There is of course nothing quite like the Biennale. (The proof of this is intimated in the name: nothing pays the compliment of fame quite as much as ownership of the generic title). To begin with there is the sheer volume of art on show.

This year you can see eighty four country pavilions, non-national installations, and a central international exhibition, together constituting several thousand works of art scattered both within the two major exhibition areas of the Giardini and the Arsenale, but also in buildings and places all over the city. In addition there are the cleverly timed national and international major exhibitions in non Biennale galleries, museums, churches and Palazzi.

And that’s before we start on the seminars, symposia, open nights, performances, and the before, during and after parties. From May to November of every odd numbered year, the spidery map of Venice is blotched with such a fantastic volume of events that the metaphor (beautifully captured in Lorenzo Quin’s Support pictured above) of a city slowly sinking under the volume of art, advances to meet the actuality of a city slowly sinking under the advance of water. (Implication: nothing lasts, go whilst you can).

No wonder this is such a perfect location for the artifice of art: here is a place – if ever there was one – that invites the artist to play, to imagine, to create worlds of impossibility made possible. Part messy Royal Academy annual show, part cleverly thought out blockbuster exhibition, part global shop window, part Frieze art fair but without the buyers (except for Damian Hirst, see below); it’s an invitation to create with play.

Of course given the plethora of regulations and bureaucracy, ‘playing’ in Italy is a complicated, if admittedly national, activity. But at the Biennale unthinking play seems to have found its home. As a North American festival director recently commented to me, ‘Italy can be so capricious that it suits the guerrilla artist far more than the establishment one’. Yet the Biennale is where the establishment – as well as the upstart – can really play the guerrilla.

As with any large Festival, the really big question is how much of the city and how many of the people you can command. For the Biennale, there is a new director every year to look at this challenge, more often than not an internationally recognised art curator or chief. This year is the turn of Christine Macel, Director of Paris’s Pompidou Center. You might be tempted to think that a visual arts curator is the obvious programming route, but the Biennale could do far worse than exploit its unique qualities by going now and then for something quite different, perhaps a theatre group like Complicite, or better still, Punchdrunk. Oh that would be some Biennale.

But enough of context: it’s time to look at the art.

This year’s Biennale brings some big names and established artists as well as a host of lesser known global voices to Venice. Robert Wilson, Damien Hirst, Ernesto Netto, and (of those no longer alive) Philip Guston, Warhol and Rauschenberg lead the charge of the establishment. These artists are mostly to be found outside of the Biennale pavilions for the simple reason that the pavilions are not big enough to hold their status, fees or indeed any other aspect of them.

The largest exhibition by far is by Hirst, who to be honest dominates this year’s Venice with a show that is astounding, and has taken years (actually around a decade) to produce. It’s big in just about every way.

It is not just the number of artefacts spread across two of Venice’s largest exhibition spaces – the Pinault Collection’s Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana – nor even the size of some of some of the pieces, startling though a number of these are, but more the sheer depth of storytelling that Hirst weaves. An idea of scale can be got from the fact that the basic guide for the exhibition (the sort of thing that some museums and galleries give away for free with a handful of pages) numbers some 70 pages.

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Just how big? the Demon with Bowl that greets audiences at the start of the Palazzo Grassi section of Damien Hirst’s exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. It fills the entire central courtyard of the Grassi, all three floors of it.

Hirst has basically taken a believable idea – mounting an exhibition of shipwrecked treasure and some modern copies – and produced a sort of theme and variations on it with utterly obsessive and virtuosic attention to detail. It’s a bit like Steve Jobs, but for art rather than the iphone. The biggest question I heard people in the exhibition asking, was, ‘what is real and what is a copy’? The answer to this question is worked out on so many levels that you are forced to confront and question your own idea of the reality at work. You look at an object which has been so worked on as to give it the air of being a ‘treasure’, and try to both see it and also give it context.

The result is an exquisite hall of mirrors. These are pieces from the wreck of belief, art for a ‘post belief’ age if you like, an idea that leads us straight to the Exhibition’s title on the front cover of the guide: ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. Damien Hirst’. (it’s interesting to dispense with the full stop in the middle of the title, and this one suspects, is what Hirst is always encouraging us to do).

Many of the pieces are tactile, vigorous, inviting and by turns beautiful and or imposing. Hirst invites you into a world of both luxury and modernity: he mixes bronze, silver, gold, marble, tourmaline, amethyst, pearls, rubies, agate, lapis lazuli, selenite, sapphires and topaz with painted MDF, stainless steel, aluminium, polyester and acrylics. And the mythic subjects are endless – a panoply of figures ranging from Bachus, the Minotaur, Pharaohs, Sphinxs, demons, warriors, animals, crowns, nautilus shells, and ‘ancient’ coins. He has got his team to produce a world of worlds.

A few of the fantastic figures in Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. 
Far Right: Hirst as collector. For more images of the Exhibition see the Book online.

And all the way along, in room after room, you are being played, with enough side and sub references, jokes and jibes, to make this a fertile Phd subject for future art historians. Shakespeare, Picasso, Homer, Holywood films, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, ancient Chinese dynasties, Micky Mouse, TV documentaries, previous Hirst exhibitions, ancient African cultures, anagram signings of the artist – this list doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. The play even extends to a meticulously made video of the ‘raising’ of the objects from the ocean that looks for all the world like one of those state television large spend documentaries.

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The ultimate artifice: stills from the video of the ‘making’ of Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable that is viewable at the Palazzo Grassi during the exhibition

There are of course some big downsides. A lot of the ‘old’ pieces are beautiful, but when he resorts to MDF and aluminium for modern ‘copies’, their lack of textural interest can make them really quite tedious.

Hirst has also overplayed his hand with the number of objects. Yes, it’s quite brilliant as an idea, but there is only so much of it you can take. What starts out as imposing can all too easily become exasperating. In the end I was begging to be let out. Has he taken the Pinault – or rather us – for a ride in the process? You bet. Of course to be a cynic (or perhaps I mean a realist?) you just need to see this as a massive opportunity for future sales, something at which Hirst, as we know, is the undisputed master.

But more important are the telling arguments about cultural appropriation that the show has brought to light. It’s not clever to take a culture’s work and pass it off in a story telling device sort of way as an anonymous find of treasure from the depths. There is a good Huffington Post piece about the 14th century Nigerian Bronze Head unearthed in 1938 in Ife that is reproduced (i.e.copied) in the exhibition. Artist Victor Ehikhamenor’s comments on Instagram are worth repeating here: “Golden heads (Female) by Damien Hirst currently part of his Venice show “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” at Palazzo Grassi. For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s”.

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Nigeria’s Ife Bronze Head in Hirst’s version/copy/appropriation?

Is this a return to form for Hirst? It seems way above the quality of some of his last few years of work (remember that skull?) and will no doubt end up being seen as his big middle years project. The best pieces are extraordinarily impressive, and its exploiting of an overarching fictional story telling device is probably without comparison in the last few years of the global art world. It reveals him as not so much an artist as a fabulist.

But the last word on the exhibition should perhaps go to the following catalogue description of a representation of one of the most mythic objects from the ancient world, The Shield of Achilles (in gold and silver): “Although this fractured object may originally have been presented to the collector as a priceless historical artefact, Homer’s shield is – by its very nature – a fiction, an exercise in artistic invention that exceeds anything a human craftsman should be capable of producing”. ‘Artistic invention that exceeds anything a human craftsman should be capable of producing’: yes, yes Damien, we are mightily impressed, but please, don’t overstate.

Elsewhere in Venice, some of the best installations are the ones prepared to use a bit of fun and lightness. If you want something bright, then American stage director Robert Wilson has celebrated coffee producer Illy’s 25th art collection anniversary with ‘The Dish ran away with the Spoon’, a series of rooms in the old salt warehouse in Dorsuduro that seemed to bring a smile to everyone’s face. To quote Julie Baumgardner in Wallpaper online, this is a “brilliantly bonkers journey through Wilson’s imagination”.

And what an imagination. Taking his cue from a nonsense nursery rhyme that dates back to medieval England he riffs in each room on different ways to bring the nonsense alive and kicking in glorious technicolour. Try this facebook video of the rooms for size.

Robert Wilson on form with Illy coffee and English nonsense nursery rhymes

Nearby, the Grenadan pavilion also plays a few jokes, and in the Arsenale you can find a Tunisian kiosk that will stamp you a free visa for citizenship anywhere in the world. Nice joke in these days of migrant crises, or simply irony? I let other visitors decide.

Sometimes that wit can work by also being deadly serious. Claudia Fontes’s Argentinian Arsenale installation The Horse Problem was described in the guide as “focusing on the idea of nation, territories and national identities, [it] gives a key to interpret history and future”. Art speak? Yet in practice it was riveting. A powerful assault on the senses that used the space with confidence and effect.

Claudia Fontes’s Argentinian installation The Horse Problem

And the same sense of power in the Arsenale comes from a very different piece from New Zealand, a highly original narrative playing out the violence perpetrated by British colonial soldiers on the indigenous New Zealand population, all presented on a rolling multi incident video screen, as powerful as it is imaginative, innovative and entertaining.

The power of indigenous culture was even more present in Ernesto Netto’s installation Um Sagrado Lugar (A Sacred Place) at the Arsenale. It’s archetypal Netto; a netting structure recreating the feel of the sacred spaces of Amazon rainforest Indians, a Cupixawa (meaning a meeting place of social, political and spiritual ceremonies). And not far away, Slovenia’s film by Nika Auto uses the idea of trains, and the Belgrade Ljubljana line, as another set of symbols for displacement, marginalisation and immigration.

Finally there are the big national pavilions in the Giardinia. Russia’s pavilion tops the ranking for me, a powerful cohesive rendition that gathers together ideas of totalitarianism, imagination and morality in a beautifully produced all white sculpted series of objects of tantalising imagination, each room serving a different but useful purpose within the whole.

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20170616_104710Russia’s Theatrum Orbis, commissioned and curated by Semyon Mikhailovsky. It consists of a variety of sculpture, installation, video and sound pieces, by artists Grisha Bruskin, Recycle Group and Sasha Pirogova.The title of the exhibition refers to Abraham Ortelius’ ‘Theatre of the World’ atlas (the first modern atlas), published in 1570 during Europe’s great age of colonialism and discovery.

The last room, by Recycle Group, (explanation text in the image below) has a particularly contemporary take on Dante, with sinning figures of today’s internet trapped in sculpted blocks (try the app):

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Elsewhere, everyone was talking about the German pavilion, where Anne Imhof in Faust has created a series of often harrowing tableau including people trapped below visitor’s feet, screaming soundtracks and figures, literally crawling up the walls. Unfortunately (ditto the Canadian and Japanese pavilions) it was closed during my visit due to storm damage, although I did manage a look inside Geoffrey Farmer’s Canadian pavilion, where the roof-less and largely wall-less construction seemed to have anticipated the storm with some clever foresight. But of course I missed the objects placed inside the deconstructed building that are placed to complete the idea of breaking from the past. That same trick – breaking with the past – is also evident next door in the British Pavilion.

The British pavilion sits at the top of the national avenue in an arguably supreme location. Recent years have brought impressive installations from the likes of Gilbert and George, and Jeremy Deller. But this year I strained to see the point of Phyllida Barlow’s Folly, a child-like series of Papier-mâché like blotch coloured spheres and objects hanging on precarious looking sticks. Her previous work such as Peninsula, Stint, TIP and the Tate’s 2014 commission impressed with their insistent almost violent deconstructionist mantra, but here the objects of Folly seem marooned and unimposing.

Similarly disappointing was the French pavilion which mounted an interesting looking set of objects around the idea of instruments, music and sound studios. The problem was the curation – or rather lack of it. The day I visited it was unclear what, if anything, was supposed to be happening, and no one around who seemed to know anything. (I gather from seeing subsequent Facebook posts from conductor Ilan Volkov that when the right musicians were around it could really take off. Not when I was there).

Of course this listing could go on for many more pages, and much of what can be encountered, or even the best of some of the rest is missing. To my shame I missed Philip Guston at the Academia, and Daniela Ferretti and Axel Vervoordt’s latest offering at the eclectic sumptuous Palazzo Fortuny sounded enticing as always. Yet attempting to conquer the whole of the Biennale would simply be a painful folly.

What soon becomes clear however, is that Christine Macel has definitely brought this year’s theme back to the creativity of artists as opposed to the 56th Biennale’s more political outlook, even if as usual it’s down to individuals to decide how to tow the line. Some may have found Macel’s main pavilion a little unpersuasive. It was pleasant enough, a sort of homely drop in art cafe, and it did add a nice participative note to what can often be an overly passive experience. But the big question it leaves me with is that question about relevance: look at the world today. Should art be made to disturb? Is it allowed anymore to simply exist in the aesthetic zone, or should we require it to be instrumental as well as intrinsic? How you think about this question will probably determine how you feel about No. 57.

But however you look at it, it is Venice – and particularly the Arsenale – that emerges yet again as the greatest story of the Biennale, a unique platform for the artistic spur. In the Arsenale you can both wander and wonder for hours before even encountering any pavilions, challenging any artist to raise their game on entering.

Tip of the iceberg: views onto the North east corner of the Arsenale

Back to the City. On my last evening in Venice I took in the opportunity of a rare performance of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno D’Ulisse In Patria (The Return of Ulysses). Written in 1643 in and for Venice, it is Monteverdi’s last opera. Its music and its drama are infused with the same sumptuous harmonic colour and intense theatrical drama that suffuses the city of its creation. As you walk out of the Fenice opera house at the end of the performance, down the entrance steps that take you from theatre to city, something quite extraordinary happens: there is no sense of the usual transition from artifice to reality. It is as if you are moving simply from one stage to another, with no change in the suspension, or to any resumption, of reality.

You look out, and you are met by a scene of buildings, streets, people, and indeed of spirit that are what make Venice the ultimate theatre of art, and its Biennale the ultimate emanation of that theatre. I know of nowhere else in the world with quite this sensation. And then there is its transience, and vulnerability. The Venetians know all too well that nothing lasts forever. If that theatre is your quest, then go whilst you can.

Marshall Marcus, July 2017

Note 1:
It is currently estimated that on most days of the year there are more tourists than locals in Venice. This article from a UK newspaper outlines current worries and plans to limit numbers: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/italy/veneto/venice/articles/venice-considers-capping-tourist-numbers-to-stop-overcrowding/

Photo credits: Marshall Marcus

 

 

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